1642: First campaigns of the English Civil War
During the summer of 1642, an armed confrontation between King Charles I and the Long Parliament became inevitable. Having been driven from London by hostile citizens early in the year, the King went north and set up his court at York. In response to Parliament's attempt to seize control of the armed forces through the Militia Ordinance, the King issued the first Commissions of Array in June 1642. The final attempt to reach a negotiated agreement failed with the King's rejection of Parliament's Nineteen Propositions and the first military action of the English Civil War took place in early July when a Royalist raiding party was driven away by gunfire from the walls of Hull.
Realising that he needed a more central location to muster forces against Parliament, the King marched from York to Nottingham where, on 22 August 1642, the royal battle standard was raised over Nottingham Castle. This was the King's declaration of war against Parliament and a call-to-arms to all loyal subjects. Royalists rallied from Yorkshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire. The princes Rupert and Maurice and other European military experts had already arrived from the continent with men and munitions, but the Royalist army was not strong enough to give battle. After seizing the weapons of the Nottinghamshire Trained Bands, King Charles set out to raise recruits from Cheshire and the Welsh Marches. On 20 September, the King's men occupied Shrewsbury, then Chester on the 23rd. Although support was less wholehearted than expected, the King had succeeded in raising fifteen regiments of foot, eight of horse and a regiment of dragoons by the beginning of October 1642.
Parliament's army was initially raised from volunteers in London and Essex and financed by City merchants. It was commanded by Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, who marched from London on 9 September and gathered his forces at Northampton. The Parliamentarian force comprised twelve regiments of foot, six of horse, a regiment of dragoons and Essex's own cuirassier lifeguard regiment. Essex intended to march against the King at Nottingham, but learning that Charles had withdrawn to the Welsh border, he marched for Worcester on 19 September. Both sides believed that the quarrel between King and Parliament would be decided by a single pitched battle.
On 10 September, Sir John Byron left Oxford with a force of 150 dragoons and a large convoy of money and silver plate, donated by the university for the King's cause. Slowed down by the heavily-laden convoy, Byron's force took ten days to cover the sixty miles from Oxford to Worcester, en route to join the King's army at Shrewsbury.
Meanwhile, on 19 September, the Earl of Essex marched from Northampton towards Worcester via Coventry and Warwick. An advance guard of around 1,000 horse and dragoons commanded by Colonel John Brown, a Scottish professional, rode ahead to intercept Byron's convoy. Aware that the Parliamentarians were closing in on Worcester, Prince Rupert rode with a detachment from the King's army to reinforce Byron.
Colonel Brown's detachment arrived before Worcester at dawn on 22 September. Unable to force their way into the city, the Parliamentarians withdrew southwards, along the east bank of the River Severn. They crossed the river at Upton Bridge and marched back up the western bank. At dawn on 23 September, the Parliamentarians took up a position near Powick Bridge on the River Teme, a tributary of the Severn a mile-and-a-half south of Worcester. Brown guessed that when Essex's main army arrived before Worcester, Byron would try to escape up the western bank of the Severn towards Shrewsbury. Brown intended to attack Byron's convoy when it emerged from Worcester.
That afternoon, Parliamentarian sympathisers from Worcester informed Brown that the convoy was preparing to leave. On receiving additional confirmation that Essex's army was approaching, Brown ordered his dragoons to mount up and sent Colonel Sandys' cavalry regiment across Powick Bridge and into the narrow lane beyond to occupy Wick Field at the end of the lane. Unknown to the Parliamentarians, however, Prince Rupert's detachment had arrived at Worcester to cover Byron's withdrawal. Rupert had posted dragoons to line the hedges of the lane leading to Powick Bridge, while his cavalry rested in Wick FIeld. When the Royalist dragoons opened fire on the Parliamentarian cavalry, Sandys rushed forward to get clear of the lane and into Wick FIeld, where he blundered into Rupert's troopers as they hurriedly armed themselves and remounted. Before the Parliamentarians could organise their deployment, Rupert led a charge in which Sandys was killed and his men were driven back down the lane in disarray. Colonel Brown's dragoons held Powick Bridge to cover the retreat and succeeded in checking the pursuing Royalists with musket fire before withdrawing in good order. However, the routed Parliamentarian cavalry kept going, re-crossing the Severn at Upton and galloping a further ten miles to Pershore, where the Earl of Essex's lifeguard had just arrived. Believing that Rupert's cavaliers were in hot pursuit, the lifeguard also turned and fled back to Essex's main army.
The following day, the Earl of Essex occupied Worcester. The mayor of Worcester was placed under arrest and Parliamentarian soldiers looted Worcester Cathedral. However, the action at Powick Bridge had secured the Oxford treasure convoy for the King.
Although it was a relatively minor skirmish, Powick Bridge was the first significant military action of the English Civil War and a serious blow to the morale of the Parliamentarian cavalry. Conversely, the action helped to establish Prince Rupert's reputation as an invincible cavalry commander.
In early October 1642, the King's army was mustering at Shrewsbury on the Welsh border while the Earl of Essex and the Parliamentarian army were forty miles away at Worcester. Essex expected the King to advance down the Severn valley to give battle so he established advance positions around Bewdley to give warning of any movement from the Royalists. The Royalists knew that a battle was inevitable but preferred that it should take place in the Midlands, where the countryside was open, rather than amongst the fields and enclosures of the Severn valley, which would hamper the deployment of the superior Royalist cavalry. Consequently, the King's council of war advised a direct thrust towards London. On 10 October, Prince Rupert led a detachment from Shrewsbury towards Stourbridge to give the impression that the Royalists were preparing to advance on Worcester. The Parliamentarian forward troops withdrew before Rupert's advance, convincing Essex that the Royalists were about to move down the valley. Meanwhile, the King marched south-eastwards towards London with the main Royalist army. He had reached Kenilworth in Warwickshire by the time Essex realised his intention and marched from Worcester in pursuit on 19 October.
Neither army had information on the location of the other until rival parties of quartermasters looking for billets encountered one another at Wormleighton in Warwickshire on 22 October. It transpired that the King's army at Edgecote near Banbury was only seven miles from Essex's army at the small market town of Kineton. The Royalist army had interposed itself between the Parliamentarians and London but there was no question of continuing the march with the enemy so close in the rear. Early in the morning of 23 October 1642, the Royalists began to draw up on the high ridge of Edgehill south-east of Kineton to await Essex's approach. Numerically, the two armies were evenly matched with around 14,000 men each, but the Royalists were stronger in cavalry. Essex's army had become strung-out on the march from Worcester. Two regiments under the command of John Hampden, along with most of the Parliamentarian artillery, were still a day's march behind the main force.
The Royalists were confident of an easy victory. Immediately before the battle, however, the Earl of Lindsey resigned as Lieutenant-General following a furious disagreement over the deployment of troops. Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth, was appointed to take his place. Lindsey fought at the head of his own regiment of foot and was mortally wounded during the battle. Initially the Royalists deployed in an unassailable position on the brow of Edgehill, but Essex made no attempt to attack up the steep slopes. Early in the afternoon of 23 October, the Royalists came down from the crest and drew up on the plain known as Red Horse Field below.
The Royalist foot, under the overall direction of Sergeant-Major-General Sir Jacob Astley, was deployed in five brigades in a "chequer" formation, with three brigades in the front line and two in the second to cover the gaps. The front line brigades were commanded by Colonel Charles Gerard, Colonel Richard Fielding and Colonel Henry Wentworth, with Sir John Belasyse and Sir Nicholas Byron in the second line. The argument that prompted the resignation of the Earl of Lindsey was over the formation of the brigades. Lindsey had intended to array them in the conventional Dutch formation while Prince Rupert, seconded by Lord Forth, insisted upon using the more complex Swedish formation in which each brigade was divided into four battalions in a diamond pattern to maximise their effectiveness in attack.
On the Royalist right flank, Prince Rupert led three regiments of horse and was joined by a squadron of the King's lifeguard, who insisted upon joining the attack. Sir John Byron commanded the second line. On the left flank, the front line horse were led by Commissary-General Henry Wilmot, supported by Sir Thomas Aston and Lord Digby in the second line. Sir Arthur Aston's dragoons covered the hedges and bushes on the extreme flanks.
The twelve regiments of Parliamentarian foot drew up in three brigades in the centre. The brigade on the right was commanded by Sir John Meldrum, with Colonel Charles Essex's brigade on the left. The third or reserve brigade formed the second line and was commanded by Sir Thomas Ballard. The Parliamentarian horse was nominally under the command of William Russell, Earl of Bedford but as Bedford had little military experience, the Scottish professionals Sir William Balfour and Sir James Ramsey effectively commanded the cavalry.
On the Parliamentarian left wing, Sir James Ramsay commanded two loosely-organised lines of horse supported by a body of three hundred commanded musketeers and field guns, with dragoons covering the flank. The arrangement of cavalry on the Parliamentarian right flank is not known for certain. As the Parliamentarians were lacking in cavalry, the Earl of Bedford, with three regiments of horse, was probably drawn up level with the second line of infantry rather than the first. Two heavily-armoured cuirassier regiments under Sir William Balfour and Sir Philip Stapleton were also positioned on the right flank as a reserve, possibly behind Meldrum's infantry.
The battle began at about three o'clock in the afternoon with a short and ineffective exchange of artillery fire. Royalist dragoons advanced to clear the hedges and drive back the Parliamentarian musketeers, thus disrupting Sir James Ramsay's carefully planned defensive position on the Parliamentarian left wing. Prince Rupert gave the order for his cavalry to attack. Fire from the Parliamentarian field guns proved ineffective as the Royalist cavalry advanced resolutely towards Ramsay's position. The Parliamentarians were further demoralised by the last-minute defection of Sir Faithfull Fortescue's troop of horse to the Royalists. Ramsay's troopers fired a single volley as Rupert's cavaliers approached, then turned and fled. Ramsay himself is said to have galloped back to London, spreading word of a catastrophic defeat. Colonel Essex's infantry brigade on the left of the front line also fled in the face of the Royalist onslaught, colliding with some of the second line infantry regiments as they did so.
On the other side of the field, Wilmot's cavalry advanced to shatter Parliament's right wing of horse and some of the neighbouring foot. On both wings, the triumphant Royalist cavalry rode off in an uncontrolled pursuit of the fleeing Parliamentarians and were joined against orders by the reserves: Sir John Byron on the right flank, Aston and DIgby on the left. This left the Royalists with no cavalry in the field, while the Parliamentarian reserve cavalry regiments of Balfour and Stapleton remained unscathed.
Meanwhile, the five brigades of Royalist foot under the overall command of Sir Jacob Astley advanced in the centre. Sir Thomas Ballard brought up what was left of the Parliamentarian reserve to close the line and meet the attack, replacing Colonel Essex's routed brigade to stand with Sir John Meldrum. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, the Earl of Essex fought alongside his men with a pike in his hands. The Parliamentarians stood their ground and succeeded in forcing back the Royalists, who withdrew to their original position as a firefight developed in the centre of the battlefield.
With most of the cavalry off the field, Sir William Balfour advanced with one of the reserve Parliamentarian cuirassier regiments against Colonel Richard Fielding's infantry brigade in the centre, exploiting a tactical error that left a flank exposed. Balfour broke through the Royalist line, routed the brigade and captured Fielding along with two of his regimental colonels, Lunsford and Stradling. Although they were not aware of it, a party of Balfour's men came close to capturing the royal princes Charles and James, who were watching the battle from behind the lines. The cuirassiers pursued the fleeing Royalists back to their artillery positions several hundred yards in the rear on the slopes of Edgehill. After slaughtering the gunners and cutting the trace ropes so that the guns could not be hauled away, Balfour withdrew towards the Parliamentarian lines, only to come under fire from his own side, who mistook the returning cavalry for Royalists.
Simultaneously with Balfour's attack, Sir Philip Stapleton led another regiment of cuirassiers against the Royalists in the centre, but with less success. However, as Stapleton's men fell back, Balfour returned to join forces for a second attack. While the Earl of Essex sent infantry units on the Parliamentarian right wing forward for a frontal attack on Sir Nicholas Byron's brigade, Balfour and Stapleton swept around to attack the flank. The Royalist infantry recoiled and wheeled around under the force of the combined onslaught, exposing the King's lifeguard of foot. The royal standard-bearer Sir Edmund Verney was killed and the Banner Royal itself was captured by the Parliamentarians. The Earl of Lindsey was mortally wounded and captured while fighting at the head of his regiment; his son Lord Willoughby d'Eresby killed two Roundhead officers in an attempt to rescue his father but was himself taken prisoner.
At this critical point in the battle, the Royalist horse began to return to the field. Sir Charles Lucas, lieutenant-colonel of Lord Grandison's regiment, succeeded in rallying about 200 of the cavalry that had charged with Wilmot. One of his captains, John Smith, gallantly attacked the party that was making off with the Banner Royal and recaptured it, for which he was knighted. However, by the time Prince Rupert and Wilmot returned to the battlefield to stabilise the Royalist position, their troopers were too tired to engage the enemy. With the light beginning to fade, the exhausted armies drew apart and the battle died away in a half-hearted firefight.
Both armies remained on the battlefield during the night and for most of the following day. Although Parliamentarian infantry reinforcements and a few stray troops of horse arrived at Kineton, the bulk of Essex's cavalry was widely scattered so that an assault on the Royalists was not feasible. There was little enthusiasm to resume the battle in the King's army. The Royalist infantry had been badly battered and the cavalry was in disarray. During the evening of 24 October, the Royalists withdrew to Edgecote. With the King's army still commanding the road to London, the Earl of Essex fell back to Warwick. While neither side had gained a clear victory, Essex's withdrawal allowed the Royalists to continue their advance on the capital.
After the battle of Edgehill, Prince Rupert advised an immediate cavalry strike against London before the Earl of Essex's army could return. However, the King decided upon a more cautious advance with the whole Royalist army, which allowed Essex time to march back to London unopposed. Parliament was anxious to keep up the morale of Londoners and organised a hero's welcome for Essex upon his arrival in the capital on 7 November. During Essex's absence, Parliament had commissioned the Earl of Warwick to raise a further seven regiments for the City's defence and the 6,000 men of the London Trained Bands were mobilised. Sir James Ramsay was sent with 3,000 troops from Essex's main army to defend Kingston, the first crossing of the River Thames above London Bridge, and detachments were posted at Acton and Brentford to guard the western approaches to the CIty.
The King advanced on the capital via Banbury, Oxford, Reading and Windsor. On 12 November, the 13,000 men of the Royalist army mustered on Hounslow Heath. Although he agreed to meet a delegation of Parliamentarian commissioners at Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire, the King expected Parliament to submit to his authority. In order to strengthen his position by intimidating his opponents, he approved Prince Rupert's proposal to attack the Parliamentarian outpost at Brentford.
Brentford was defended by the infantry regiments of Lord Brooke and Denzil Holles, both of which had fought at Edgehill. On the morning of 12 November, taking advantage of a thick mist, Prince Rupert advanced with four regiments of horse along the Great West Road. Rupert intended to take the Parliamentarians by surprise but the tables were turned when the redcoats of Holles's regiment, who had fortified Sir Richard Wynn's house on the outskirts of Brentford, opened fire on the advancing Royalists. Rupert's cavalry fell back to await the arrival of infantry under the command of the Earl of Forth. In a determined attack, the Royalist infantry cleared the Parliamentarians from the house and advanced on Brentford itself. A barricade had been set up at the bridge over the River Brent, a tributary of the Thames. This was cleared within an hour and the Parliamentarians fell back to a second barricade defended by Brooke's regiment and two field guns. It took another two or three hours fighting to drive the Parliamentarians from this position. Some fled through Brentford towards London while others tried to escape by swimming the River Thames, where many were drowned. The Royalist advance through Brentford was checked at the far end of the town as John Hampden's regiment came up in time to cover the retreat of the surviving Parliamentarians. Having killed around fifty Parliamentarians and taken over three hundred prisoners, the victorious Royalists looted Brentford.
Colonel Blagge occupied Syon House on the banks of Thames and bombarded Parliamentarian barges carrying supplies from Kingston to London. Their crews sank them deliberately to prevent the capture of their cargoes.
Parliamentary propaganda played up the ferocity of the attack on Brentford and emphasized the King's duplicity in sanctioning it while peace negotiations were in progress. With enthusiastic support from the citizens of London, the Earl of Essex concentrated all available Parliamentarian forces to block any further Royalist advance. With his army reinforced by the Trained Bands and the regiments newly-recruited by the Earl of Warwick, Essex fielded a force of more than 24,000 men to face the King's army of around 13,000. The two armies drew up on 13 November to face one another in an open area formed by Turnham Green, Acton Green and Chiswick Common on the western outskirts of London.
Essex sent six regiments under the command of John Hampden to outflank the Royalists by occupying high ground to the north of the Royalist position, but then recalled them. He also withdrew the 3,000 men under Sir James Ramsay at Kingston and sent them to a new position on the Surrey side of London Bridge. While the reasoning behind Essex's manoeuvres is obscure, the Royalists were in no position to exploit them, being too heavily outnumbered to risk a general assault. The two armies faced one another all day with a few casualties resulting from exchanges of artillery fire and some skirmishing. As darkness began to fall, Lord Forth withdrew the Royalist army through Brentford to Hounslow Heath, covered by a rearguard commanded by Prince Rupert and Sir Jacob Astley.
Having prevented the Royalists from advancing on London, Essex made no move to pursue them as they withdrew westwards to Reading and then to Oxford, which became the King's headquarters and Royalist capital for the duration of the war.
Both sides sent their main armies into winter quarters. The Earl of Essex deployed forces to guard the western approaches to London with a forward base at Windsor. Reading was fortified for the King with strong garrisons at Wallingford and Abingdon to secure communications with Oxford. Additional Royalist garrisons were set up at Banbury, Brill, Faringdon and Burford to form a defensive circle. Oxford itself was occupied by four regiments of foot, and work began on a new circuit of earthworks and fortifications to replace the ruinous medieval walls.
During December 1642, Henry Wilmot led a force of dragoons from Oxford in a daring raid to capture the town of Marlborough in Wiltshire, thus opening a line of communications with Royalists in the south-west. On the Parliamentarian side, Sir William Waller remained active in securing the western approaches to London, capturing Farnham, Winchester and Chichester and justifying his reputation in London as "William the Conqueror".
The Battle of Edgehill Revealed
The battle of Edgehill fought in October 1642 was the first pitched battle of the English Civil War. The Battle of Edgehill website offers a unique interactive exploration of the battlefield based on Google Maps.
The site illustrates the various theories of the deployment of the armies and discusses the known facts about the battle in detail. Original accounts and local traditions are also included. Highly recommended.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1958)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
C. Jorgensen, M. Pavkovic, R. Rice, F. Schneid, C. Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World 1500-1763 (Staplehurst 2005)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
K. Roberts & J. Tincey, Edgehill 1642 (Osprey 2001)
William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746, (Ware 1997)
Austin Woolrych, Battles of the English Civil War (London 1961)
"Battel of Worcester" — a Royalist ballad about Powick Bridge
Powick Bridge : Edgehill : Brentford : Turnham Green : UK Battlefields Resource Centre
Brentford and Turnham Green Battlefield Trails Project
Edgehill ghost armies — an account of the legend on the BBC website